Sri Lanka has got a new President and a new government. The nation has voted in the common Opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, and voted out incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promptly congratulated Sirisena, indicating the traditional Indian readiness and willingness to work with the new government.
Indian concerns in and with Sri Lanka can be broadly identified with the ‘ethnic issue’ and the ‘China factor’. As the facilitator of 13-A power-devolution deriving from the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, India owes to itself, the Tamils of Sri Lanka and that nation as a whole, to help restore ethnic peace and balance in that country.
The Indian sympathies and assistance, if any, for the Rajapaksa government to battle out the LTTE too derived from such a perception. However, the promised peace has eluded Sri Lanka, and that has had its overtones for politics and elections in India, with particular focus on southern Tamil Nadu. More so, it has also had impacted on bilateral relations in more ways than one, particularly in the larger international context of a succession of UNHRC votes on ‘accountability issue’ deriving from US-sponsored resolution on alleged ‘war crimes’ in Sri Lanka.
The presidential poll results have shown that President-elect Sirisena’s victory was made possible by the overwhelming vote of the nation’s minorities, particularly the Sri Lankan Tamils (SLT) in the North, East and elsewhere in the country. The ruling Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the community-centric Northern Province has proved to the world that it has ‘freed’ itself from the LTTE, and so have the Tamil voters, who mostly ignored the ‘poll boycott’ call given by a section of the ‘Tamil nationalists’.
A direct role for India in the future ethnic negotiations is ruled out, but the Indian concerns will be addressed wholly only when the new government and its limited TNA underwriter arrive at a negotiated settlement. Five years back, after the conclusion of ‘Eelam War IV’ those concerns related mainly to a political solution – 13-plus, as differently envisioned by the stake-holders concerned.
Today, ‘accountability’ and ‘de-militarisation’ issues have also been added, among others. Both sides are also variously pressured by the pending UNHRC resolution, where the international probe team is expected to present its first (interim?) report in the upcoming session in March. The new government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would require time. But the TNA cannot be seen as acquiescing to the UNHRC facilitating such time.
Potential to fall apart
India, more than the rest of the international community, could get caught in between, particularly if the US, mover of the three earlier resolutions, is constrained to move a fourth one in March. Having taken the principled and long-known stand on ‘sovereignty-related’ issue on the ‘accountability’ front, India cannot be seen as doing otherwise.
Internally, the Tamils and the TNA having given the winning edge to Sirisena along with other minority communities in the country cannot be seen as compromising on the larger issues, after yielding on non-mention of the ‘ethnic issue’ in the Opposition candidate’s poll manifesto. In real terms, they need to keep their constituency together for a long time to come.
The Sirisena-Ranil leadership, with blessings from a host of anti-Rajapaksa leaders and forces, starting with former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, cannot be seen as ‘compromising wholesale’ to the minorities, the Tamils in particular. All sides would have to face parliamentary polls in the months to come, and the ‘anti-incumbency’ Sinhala constituency may have different views on the ‘ethnic issue’ in the absence of the Rajapaksa presidency.
India will be keenly watching the proceedings out there, and so will it have to, the dynamics of the poll-time coalition, which has the potential to fall apart as much as it has the potency to stay together. The Indian concerns will also relate to the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’, where the competitive sections of the Dravidian polity, big and small, will need to readjust themselves to ‘Sri Lanka Tamil politics’ without President Rajapaksa. They will also need to retune their Sri Lanka-related politics in the country to the TNA’s successful call against ‘poll boycott’ – which most of them had subscribed to, under influence from patrons in the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora.
The temptation in the Indian strategic community would be for the new Sri Lankan dispensation to show the door to China, which according to them has been playing spoiler to traditionally strong (?) bilateral relations between the two South Asian neighbours. It’s not easy for any government in Sri Lanka to meet their expectations, and not certainly overnight.
It’s not without reason. Independent of political affiliations of individual parties and individuals in power in Sri Lanka, the nation has had a long and tested relations with China – as against what some in the Sri Lankan strategic community would want to believe was ‘testy’ ties with India, which also came to be tested time and again over the past decades.
Be it the ‘rubber-rice’ deal of the early Fifties, or the weapons deal for Sri Lanka to take on the LTTE, the Big Two of Sri Lanka’s politics, namely, the UNP and the SLFP – three successive Presidents, namely, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and now Maithripala Sirisena come from the party – China has done for Sri Lanka that India has not done, according to these sections of the Sri Lankan strategic community. But that is not saying all of it. Not that they would want to say all that would be in praise of and acknowledgement of Indian assistance.
The question would also relate to the internal dynamics of the new ruling coalition, which is yet to take stock of their post-poll relations and draw a common agenda for the new government, which addresses the tricky ideological differences of important partners. While some like the centre-Left JVP may choose to stay away from a government, others, including the TNA and the Muslim parties, would have to rediscover themselves under the changed circumstances, and find a common ground to work with.
In the medium, if not the immediate term, India could expect the new Sri Lankan dispensation to try to move back to the balancing centrist position in relations with India and China. While this would also imply that India needs to learn fast to try and complete commitments and projects on time, the fact also remains that no nation or international financial institution is in a position to underwrite Sri Lanka’s long-standing debts to China, or replace the debtor as in personal banking transactions.
That way, the new government in Colombo would not want to be seen as dropping various developmental projects initiated by the Rajapaksa dispensation, as it has the potential to make them overnight unpopular with the masses. These developmental projects mostly involve huge Chinese investments, and Sri Lanka is yet to enjoy the fruits – in terms of employment creation and the like.
Pre-poll, the leadership of the new government had set a 100-day time-frame for changing the Constitution and abolishing the Executive Presidency. They had reiterated that the ‘ethnic issue’ fell outside the framework of the 100-day work-schedule. So would the ‘China factor’, which is going to take its time, doing the balancing act, with India on the one hand and the US on the other – both having common yet different and differentiated concerns with and about China.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)